The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

The Lorax

By Dr. Seuss

Today I saw an ad for a new children’s movie, coming soon! It was colourful, bouncy, environmental… it was Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

I love Dr. Seuss. His stories are unique and entertaining. Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham. Who hasn’t read these stories? They’re seminal in the literary development of children, and The Lorax is no different.

To me, The Lorax was the Dr. Seuss story I could never find. I still don’t own it as a story on it’s own – I’m not even sure it exists in it’s own paperback. I first read it in a Seuss treasury, and I found it rather dark. The story opens on a desolate, over-industrialized location, where an unseen man/woman/thing called the Once-ler hides behind bordered windows, but is willing to peer out to tell you a story for the right price.

The story of The Lorax is a tale of industrialization. The land is clean, the colours bright and sunny when an entrepreneur sets up shop, and starts cutting down the valuable Truffula trees for his business. As the business becomes more successful, he starts over-cutting. The eponymous Lorax appears, saying that he speaks for the trees and tells him to stop. But the Once-ler keeps on cutting, slowly developing a great industrial marvel while destroying the land. When the last tree is cut, the Lorax takes all the displaced and harmed animals away where they can’t be hurt anymore.

It’s a simple, but effective story. Watch the colour cues, and the way industrialization is dark while the environment is light. All mixed in with Dr. Seuss’ silly drawings; my favorite is his depiction of the garment the entrepreneur makes.

So, back to the movie. Obviously, since it’s not out yet, I can’t really comment, but I admit that I’m a bit concerned. For more movies, the issue fans have is that you are, inevitably, cutting things out. Whereas with Dr. Seuss, we have proven that an entire story can be told in a 30 minute special. The solution is that a lot of extra padding is added, as evidenced by How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Cat in the Hat. So far, it’s had mixed results.

The Lorax will be done in animation, rather then real life, and the animation looks good! I admit, I will go see it when it comes out. I’m interested to see how they will interpret the story. There will be padding, for sure. But what will they focus the padding on? Will they keep the ending the same? The ending and the beginning is what makes The Lorax so effective.

What do you think? Will you go see The Lorax when it hits theatres? Do you think children’s picture books should be made into movies?

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

Home Alone

And now for something with almost no seasonal or religious affiliation (yet somehow retaining both) – Home Alone!

This is one of those classic movies that I almost didn’t see. Please don’t ask me how. I just remember that, when everyone else in my class was excitedly talking about how they were going to see Home Alone and bust a gut over it, I was sitting there with my head cocked going “Home Alone what now?”

I’ve never been one for comedies, but if I can handle them at any time, Christmas is the time. And Home Alone is one of those classics that should always be played at Christmas. What’s not to love? The acting is great, especially when you consider how old half the characters are, the story is fun, and because it’s set at Christmas time you can do all the fun things and no one will get mad! Because it’s Christmas!

Most of you will know the story: boy (Kevin) gets left home alone while his ridiculously large family flies to France, mother goes insane trying to get home to find him and no neighbours are around to go help him. Conveniently, burglars are hitting up every empty house on the street, and the McCallister house is the perfect target. Kevin decides that he will not sit back and let his house be burglarized, so he sets up a series of elaborate traps to keep the robbers out. Just when things look darkest, he’s saved by the friendly/creepy-looking man who shovels snow and the family all make it home for the holidays. Hugs all around!

What they don’t show you is the family realizing exactly what Kevin’s destroyed while they’re gone, and how many, many years Kevin spends grounded.

Home Alone is a great movie, especially at Christmas time. The focus is on the screwball comedy and both sets of actors (the thieves & Kevin, the parents/adults) carry off their roles very well. We can forgive the child actors for their occasional slips because, hey, they’re kids, and that’s what they do!

There’s even a Christmas message shoehorned into the overall story, which is impressive when you consider that the whole thing is one kid trying to defend his house against two crafty (I use the term loosely) robbers. But it’s there; it even takes place in a church! Kevin even says grace over dinner! I am shocked. Shocked!

This movie is not for everyone. Overall, I think it’s harmless, and most kids in North America have seen it at some point in their lives. It’s a great movie to put in, sit back, and laugh to a semi-Christmas message. And because it does have a Christmas message, I give it a thumbs up for the holiday season.

(please use discretion based on the ages of your children)

Sesame Street (SesameStreet.org)

Sesame Street does a bad job designing a site that is brightly coloured, sparkly, and contains both sound and animation. This is a great start – something to catch and hold your child’s attention. All the big links are along the top of the bar, where children will find and click on them.

Sesame Street has been a definitive force in children’s media education for 45 years and counting, and this site is clearly targeted to kids. Depending on how much you teach your children about how to use websites, your child might be able to navigate this website without issue and get the full impact of everything. I do suggest parents vet this site for themselves and watch to see how your child handles this site before leaving them to have at it.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Sesame Workshop, (2011). Sesame Street. Sesamestreet.org More

WALL-E

The movie is set in 2805, where Earth is abandoned to trash and humans have retreated to space. WALL-E, is a lonely robot, until he meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). After innocently showing his new friend a plant, EVE grabs the plant and shuts down, leaving WALL-E to pine over his love. Will he ever finish his directive?

WALL-E has it all. The story is unique and incredibly clever – over half the movie is completed without real dialogue. Yet it’s still engaging for both children and adults. I can’t recommend this movie enough for its touching theme or environmental message.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Morris, J., & Stanton, A. (2008). WALL-E. United States of America: Walt Disney Pictures.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Charlie’s mother is a single parent trying to support a family of 6: herself, Charlie, and Charlie’s four infirm grandparents. When Willy Wonka sends out the 5 golden tickets.

I have always enjoyed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but of course this is not a universal. It is well known that Roald Dahl himself hated the movie and how it twisted his story, and refused to sell the rights to the sequel. Despite that, this movie is still popular on home sales, thanks in part to its appearance as free movies TV stations, and has gained cult standing. Despite the age of the movie (40 years old), it still has some eternal charm to it, much like the original work of Roald Dahl.

The disobedient children and the moral lessons are amusing, and their punishments deliberately ambiguous. This is a great family movie that parents and children can enjoy.

Suggested Ages: 7+

Wolper, D., & Stuart, M. (1971). Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. United States: Paramount Pictures & Warner Bros.

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